Saturday, July 30, 2005

stories of collapse

I've been collecting links to stories about post-collapse Cuba, Russia, and Korea, and I'd like to share them now.

I first learned that we could look to other countries for ideas about how to survive peak oil when I read the proceeds of the Community Solutions Conference presentation by Pat Murphy about Cuba (its the second to the bottom link on the right).
Cuba reduced their oil use over 50% in one year. Castro announced on that things were going to be a little difficult and one week later, the oil tankers from Russia stopped coming in. There was no idea of "we should take six months and think this through." They got very little warning. Per capita energy use in Cuba is now running between 1/15th and 1/20th of the U.S. per capita use. Cuba is changing from an industrial to an agrarian society. Sometimes you'll hear them speak or write about a modernized peasantry. They realized they had little choice.
Later Murphy explains:

In 1991, the Soviet personnel left Cuba when the Soviet Union collapsed, and ended their subsidies, which were $6 billion annually. Cuba's GDP went down 85% in the first two years. The population lost weight, the average Cuban losing 20 pounds. There was a 30% per capita calorie decline, and there were several thousand cases of blindness from malnutrition. It was very, very tough. There was a huge decrease in the material standard of living. There is a Cuban woman in Dayton who is working at a university here, and she asked me to visit her mother when I last went to Cuba. I did so and had a great time talking to the mother. I asked if I could interview her, because I was making a film on Cuba. She said, absolutely. We talked about everything, but when I asked her what life was like during the special period, she said that she couldn't talk about it. It was just too painful.

So Cuba went through hell, but they came out of it, and I think in conditions that were far worse than anything we're facing.

Coincidentally, I was also reading Margot Peppers memoir, Through the Wall: A year in Havana which takes place during this "Special Period."
Margot Pepper's memoir propels us through the blockade to post-cold war Cuba. It's a surreal world where high-ranking officials are required to pick up hitch-hikers. Root canals, cosmetic surgery and graduate school are free, but toilet paper is exorbitant. There's no income tax nor homelessness, yet no house-paint either. As the story unfolds, Margot pursues a passionate love affair with a penniless Mexican poet who shakes up her views about Cuba. With cinematic vividness, Through the Wall reveals the failures and successes of one of the few functioning alternatives to corporate-run government, and draws out lessons that will be embraced by all who believe another world is possible.
I gave me a sense of what it would be like to live with shortages of electricity (no elevators), water (dirty dishes), and food (constant hunger). It has a lot of political content, but that is the nature of conversation in Cuba. It was an eye-opener for me. I'd treat you to some excerpts, but I unfortunately left it on a plane.

"The Cuba Diet: What will you be eating when the revolution comes?" takes an in-depth look at how Cuba feeds itself. McKibben tells of an organonponico, an urban garden that is

...especially beautiful: a few acres of vegetables attached to a shady yard packed with potted plants for sale, birds in wicker cages, a cafeteria, and a small market where a steady line of local people come to buy tomatoes, lettuce, regano, potatoes, twenty-five crops were listed on the blackboard the day I visited for their supper. Sixty-four people farm this tiny spread. Their chief is Miguel Salcines Lopez, a tall, middle-aged, intense, and quite delightful man.

This land was slated for a hospital and sports complex, he said, leading me quickly through his tiny empire. But when the food crisis came, the government decided this was more important, and they let Salcines begin his cooperative.

McKibben analyzes Cuba's system, and compares it to the U.S.

Does the Cuban experiment mean anything for the rest of the world? An agronomist would call the country's farming low-input, the reverse of the Green Revolution model, with its reliance on irrigation, oil, and chemistry. If we're running out of water in lots of places (the water table beneath China and India's grain-growing plains is reportedly dropping by meters every year), and if the oil and natural gas used to make fertilizer and run our megafarms are changing the climate (or running out), and if the pesticides are poisoning farmers and killing other organisms, and if everything at the Stop & Shop has traveled across a continent to get there and tastes pretty much like crap, might there be some real future for low-input farming for the rest of us? Or are its yields simply too low? Would we all starve without the supermarket and the corporate farm?

Wolf at the Door has a short page comparing Cuba to North Korea. Both are totalitarian governments that lost the U.S.S.R.'s support, but North Korea has fared much worse. For a heartwrenching story about life in North Korea, see the LA Times article (free registration required).

From The Wilderness has several articles about the fall of the Soviet Union. Two that do not require a subscription can be found here (part one) and here (part two), written by Dmitry Orlove, a Russian native.

What happens when a modern economy collapses, and the complex society it supports disintegrates? A look at a country that has recently undergone such an experience can be most educational. We are lucky enough to have such an example in the Soviet Union. I spent about six months living, traveling, and doing business in Russia during the perestroika period and immediately afterward, and was fascinated by the transformation I witnessed.

The story is indeed fascinating. His subsequent analysis compares Russia with America and shows that we are in a worse position with regard to peak oil than our Cold War counterparts.

Stories like this help us to gain a better understanding of the circumstances that we may find ourselves in if the worst case scenarios come true. I think it is important to think through how we would cope, at the very least, and try to get past our conditioning that "it couldn't happen here."


UNplanner said...

Even with the clear and rather shocking evidence in plain sight, most people remain clueless on the role energy plays in keeping modern civilization fed and operational.

The former Soviet Union is interesting case of a country hitting peak oil. Prior analysis of the Marxist soviet system had always claimed that their system was done in by Communism's inherient flaws and Reagan's arms race. It wasn't. It was the country's inability to maintain an increasing flow of energy that did them in. Since trade and importation was out of the question, Soviet Peak Oil was far more devastating than the US peak some 25 years earlier. As a result of their declining energy availability their economic system seized up, eventually doing in their political system.

Fortunately this happened relatively peacefully and most of the former Soviet republics and satellites joined the western world. Instead of potentially facing drastic cut-offs, food shortages, famine and yes, die-off, most simply suffered a period of painfull economic transition.

What was the worst anyone heard from East Germany? High unemployment.

By cutting loose their former client states the soviets/russians were able to better balance their oil supply/demand equation. In fact they cut demand so much, it (the supply) actually fell below the geological rate of depletion. This in combination with abundant gas supplies prevented the N. Korean and Cuban Scenarios from transpiring.

On the otherhand, the combination of Soviet withdrawls and Western embargos, N. Korea and Cuba were very much isolated and as a result, had no other recourse other than adapt. Both are very instructive examples of what could happen, up to a point.

Yes, cutting off energy inputs can vastly decrease agricultural yields. Yes an energy cut-off will ravage an economic system.

But the true answer on why one country succeeded (relatively speaking) while the other one failed is also due in part to politics and geography.

Cuba's apparent success in coping with a massive energy withdrawl was aided in large part due to the proactive responses of Castro and his government. Recognizing the true implications, he made the needed changes to the nation's food supply, transportation network and population distribution to survive this special period.

He was also aided in this transition by allowing those who disagreed with him to simply leave. In massive numbers. In addition to making political changes easier, it had the more fundemental effect of reducing the island's overall population level. With fewer people, feeding the remainder became easier. This in combination with the fact that the island's carrying capacity may well be at or higher than the current population and you have a good explanation why die-off has not visited this island.

In contrast N. Korea was doomed by the fact that its government virtually closed itself off to outsiders and severely limited out migration (which would lower the population) set the stage for both natural and economic disasters kick starting famine and die-off conditions. With a pre-cutoff population of 22M shrinking by 2M due to famine, die off is certainly a good way to describe this.

Geographically, the N. Korean peninsula is not nearly as suited to support its local population on locally available resources. The lands are far more rugged than cuba, the climate harsher and locally available energy supplies virtually non existant. As a result, their carrying capacity is more than likely LOWER than their current population. This fact is made worse by their inept leadership. If it weren't for food assistance, famine deaths would be far higher. Even this closed society is still benefiting from Catton's concept of Scope Enlargement.

(By the way, those of you in S. Korea, take note. Your side of the peninsula almost certainly exists above and beyond your carrying capacity. Your native energy supplies are just as limited as your Northern neighbor.)

In the end geography and political governance is just as important as energy availability.

What this means for the US is less than clear. Will we fail like the N. Koreans or survive like the Cubans.

Or will we see both scenarios on a regional level (N. Korea for the Desert Southwest, Cuba for the Pacific Northwest, upper midwest or new england).

It's this issue that keeps me up at night (LITERALLY!) and focuses my planning efforts on answering.

I don't intend to be a part of the die-off.

Liz Logan said...

thanks for this! brilliant as usual! :)